A letter to the teachers of English: 75Teaching a poem in the Secondary class (5) [Archives:2005/816/Education]

February 14 2005

Dr.M.N.K.Bose ([email protected])
Associate Professor of English,
Faculty of Arts, Ibb

Dear Fellow teachers,

In the last four letters I discussed the teaching of poems and presented my vies about what poems are, how they are different from other writings, how they should be taught in order to bring about the messages they convey without destroying the beauty of the writings and how the poem “Leisure” prescribed in the secondary three can be taught for the benefits of the learners.

In this last letter in the series I intend to share my views about how to test the poems, if we have to test them at all. I personally feel that poems are not for testing in the examination, but we have no choice, do we, in this matter. If we have to test poems, as the system demands, these are my views in this regard:

First of all, why am I against testing poems? Poems, as I stated in my early letters, are for reading and enjoying and how can we measure the degree of enjoyment with questions in the examination? Most of us destroy our learners' interest in reading more and more poems in the name of tests, and make poems a subject for scrutiny and examination; there cannot be a worse way to kill our learners' love for poetry.

As we have to test poems how do we do it? One of the ways of testing a poem is to test the learners' understanding of it by asking simple but challenging questions. Watch my adjectives: simple, challenging. The language of the question should be simple but the message you are testing should be challenging. For example, a few sample questions for the poem 'Leisure' can be,

What is full of care? Why?

Why do people not have time to stand and stare?

Why does the poet want us to stand and stare at several things?

Where does the smile begin? What can it enrich?

These are in addition to those given in Workbook 6 page no.93; I am sure you can think of better questions, if you spend sometime for it. These and similar questions test the understanding as well enable the learners to appreciate the poem. You can also ask about the poetic features employed in the poem , but keep them to the minimum, because these will lead to analyzing the poem into pieces and destroying it.

Some of us, especially those teaching at the higher level, are fond of asking students questions that are more difficult than the poem itself. In a study of the question papers used in a university for literature courses, one of the researchers has found that most of them focus on the technical aspects of texts, asking the students to 'explain' or 'discuss' or 'elucidate'; much of what is asked for requires simple recall of materials that has been analyzed in the classes, 'insulting their intelligence'. It is time we wake up and do justice to our profession in the universities, treating students as matured individuals and test their critical thinking and creative abilities.

To sum up, test poems without killing the interest of the learners; let them appreciate poems in English and attempt to write a few in English. Don't allot too many marks for testing poems. Find out a better way to test poems. Good luck.

Yours fraternally,